JANE AUSTEN IS NOW three for three. First ""Persuasion.'' Then ""Sense and Sensibility.'' Now Douglas McGrath's fine, funny and deeply charming Emma. ""I'm going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,'' Austen wrote of Emma Woodhouse. She was proven wrong, of course, but she had a point: her self-deluded, smug, snobbish 21-year-old heroine, who appoints herself matchmaker of Highbury with disastrous results, can be an awful pain, but her meddling misjudgments are redeemed by her wit, grace and budding moral intelligence. She's brimming with flawed but glittering potential, and it's Gwyneth Paltrow's triumph that we always keep sight of that potential as she blithely plucks all the wrong heartstrings in town.
Paltrow's swan-necked, elegant mischievousness is just one delicious flavor (albeit the most important) in McGrath's very tasty ensemble. Jeremy Northam's Mr. Knightley -- the gentlemanly Mr. Right she is too obtuse to recognize -- captures Austen's most admirable hero with just the right note of diffident strength. They're a great romantic match. Purists may feel that Toni Collette is a bit too old to be the naive Harriet, and that Alan Cumming's Reverend Elton, whom Emma has targeted to marry Harriet, isn't handsome enough, but in the face of such delightful performances, why quibble? The great Juliet Stevenson is hilarious as the self-enamored Mrs. Elton; Sophie Thompson artfully blends silliness and pathos as Miss Bates, and ""Trainspotting's'' Ewan McGregor cuts a dashing figure as the flirtatious Frank Churchill. Sumptuously appointed and filled with wonderful talk, ""Emma's'' unforced charm is a remarkable achievement for a first-time writer-director. The Texas-born McGrath, who co-wrote ""Bullets Over Broadway'' and started out as a ""Saturday Night Live'' writer, may seem an unlikely medium for Austen's 19th-century comedy, but he proves to be to the manner born.